Cleveland Fires Officer Who Killed Tamir Rice

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Above Photo: ANDY KATZ/PACIFIC PRESS/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Officer Timothy Loehmann shot Rice at a Cleveland park in November 2014.

On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice was throwing snowballs and playing with a toy pellet gun in a Cleveland park when a police car rolled into the snowy field. Within two seconds of getting out of his squad car, officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed the 12-year-old.

Two and a half years later, the Cleveland police department fired Loehmann, Mike Hayes reported for BuzzFeed on Tuesday. But the termination is not solely due to the shooting, but rather as a result of Loehmann “providing false information” when he applied to the department several years ago. Loehmann could still appeal the firing through his union.

Meanwhile, the officer who drove Loehmann to Rice, Frank Garmback, is suspended for 10 days and will get additional training.

Last year, the city of Cleveland announced it would pay the Rice family $6 million in a lawsuit settlement over the shooting. Before that, former Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced that there would be no criminal charges filed against the officers involved — arguing that while there was miscommunication between a 911 dispatcher and the officers, there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that the cops had cleared the very high bar for criminal charges in police shooting cases. (McGinty was later ousted from his position, in part due to how he handled this shooting.)

Rice’s death was one of the several police killings to first draw the attention of the national Black Lives Matter movement, which protests racial disparities in police use of force. And Cleveland exemplified these problems, not least because it has a well-known history of excessive use of force by police officers.

Cleveland police officer shot Rice within seconds of arriving at the scene

Loehmann shot Rice within two seconds of getting out of his patrol car, according to surveillance video obtained by Cleveland.com. He then stumbled back and fell, reportedly hurting his leg and ankle. Loehmann’s partner, Garmback, remained at the wheel of the car.

Warning: Graphic footage of the shooting and its aftermath:

According to documents from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department, it’s unclear whether Loehmann shouted any warnings before opening fire. Loehmann claimed that Rice grabbed the pellet gun, which he thought was an actual firearm, forcing him to shoot — a claim that McGinty, the former local prosecutor, said he believed.

“He gave me no choice,” Loehmann told another officer moments after the shooting. “He reached for the gun and there was nothing I could do.”

It’s crucial, legally, that Loehmann perceived the pellet gun as a real firearm. What matters legally is not whether Rice actually posed a threat, but whether Loehmann perceived one. So if Loehmann genuinely thought Rice was carrying a real gun and aiming it at other people, that would legally justify using deadly force — even if Rice was in reality doing no such thing and the gun was a toy.

The person who called Rice into 911 told dispatchers that a “juvenile” is “pulling a gun in and out of his pants and pointing it at people.” The caller later added, “It’s probably fake.” But the 911 dispatcher never told officers that Rice was a kid or that the gun was likely fake.

Garmback quickly reported the shooting to dispatch and requested emergency personnel respond to the scene. But the officers, neither of whom reportedly had first aid kits or training, then stood around without applying first aid for about four minutes after Rice was shot. It wasn’t until an FBI agent — a trained paramedic — walked onto the scene that Rice received first aid.

The FBI agent described Loehmann and Garmback as almost shell-shocked — wanting to do something but not knowing what to do.

Rice acknowledged the FBI agent, showing signs of life as the agent tried to tend to the boy’s wounds without any medical tools. “He turned over and acknowledged and looked at me, and he, like, reached for my hand,” the agent said, later adding that Rice said his name and mumbled something about the pellet gun.

The video also shows Rice’s sister running to the scene, reportedly to check on her wounded brother. The officers confronted the 14-year-old girl, wrestled her to the ground, and restrained her in the police car.

Paramedics arrived a few minutes later. They eventually took Rice to the hospital, where he died on November 23, 2014.

The officer who shot Rice was judged unfit for duty by a suburban police department in 2012

Loehmann began working at the Cleveland police department in March 2014, but he previously worked for six months at a small suburban police department in Ohio. Loehmann resigned after a report deemed him unfit for duty, in part because he couldn’t properly handle a firearm.

Tom McCarthy reported for the Guardian:

A police officer who shot a 12-year-old dead in a Cleveland park late last month had been judged unfit for police service two years earlier by a small suburban force where he worked for six months, according to records released on Wednesday.

Officer Timothy Loehmann, who killed Tamir Rice on 22 November, was specifically faulted for breaking down emotionally while handling a live gun. During a training episode at a firing range, Loehmann was reported to be “distracted and weepy” and incommunicative. “His handgun performance was dismal,” deputy chief Jim Polak of the Independence, Ohio, police department wrote in an internal memo.

The memo concludes with a recommendation that Loehmann be “released from the employment of the City of Independence”. Less than a week later, on 3 December 2012, Loehmann resigned.

Other records reported by Andrew Tobias for Cleveland.com showed Loehmann failed the written entrance exam for the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department. He also reportedly failed to get hired at police departments in Akron, Euclid, and Parma Heights.

Cleveland officials said they weren’t aware of Loehmann’s troubled history at other police departments when they hired him. After the Rice shooting pushed the information to the public spotlight, officials found out about it — and it apparently played a main role in Loehmann’s termination.

But Loehmann, based on a previous federal investigation, was far from the only problem in the Cleveland police force.

A previous federal investigation found Cleveland police are poorly trained and excessively violent

A 2014 Department of Justice investigation, which didn’t look at the Rice shooting, found Cleveland police officers used excessive deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons; unnecessary, excessive, and retaliatory force, including Tasers, chemical sprays, and their fists; and excessive force against people with mental illness or in crisis, including one situation in which officers were called exclusively to check up on someone’s well-being.

Police officers also used “poor and dangerous tactics” that often put them “in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable and places officers and civilians at unnecessary risk,” according to the report.

In one example from the Justice Department report, a cop shot at an unarmed man who was in his underwear:

An incident from 2013 in which a sergeant shot at a victim as he ran from a house where he was being held against his will is just one illustration of this problem. “Anthony” was being held against his will inside a house by armed assailants. When officers arrived on scene, they had information that two armed assailants were holding several people inside the home. After officers surrounded the house, Anthony escaped from his captors and ran from the house, wearing only boxer shorts. An officer ordered Anthony to stop, but Anthony continued to run toward the officers. One sergeant fired two shots at him, missing. According to the sergeant, when Anthony escaped from the house, the sergeant believed Anthony had a weapon because he elevated his arm and pointed his hand toward the sergeant. No other officers at the scene reported seeing Anthony point anything at the sergeant.

The sergeant’s use of deadly force was unreasonable. It is only by fortune that he did not kill the crime victim in this incident. The sergeant had no reasonable belief that Anthony posed an immediate danger. The man fleeing the home was wearing only boxer shorts, making it extremely unlikely that he was one of the hostage takers. In a situation where people are being held against their will in a home, a reasonable police officer ought to expect that someone fleeing the home may be a victim. Police also ought to expect that a scared, fleeing victim may run towards the police and, in his confusion and fear, not immediately respond to officer commands. A reasonable officer in these circumstances should not have shot at Anthony.

The Justice Department attributed many of these problems to inadequate training and supervision. “Supervisors tolerate this behavior and, in some cases, endorse it,” the report said. “Officers report that they receive little supervision, guidance, and support from the Division, essentially leaving them to determine for themselves how to perform their difficult and dangerous jobs.”

Former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who headed the Justice Department at the time of the investigation, argued that fixing these issues is crucial for both the general public and police. “Accountability and legitimacy are essential for communities to trust their police departments, and for there to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve,” he said.

Since then, the Cleveland police department has worked to implement reforms — in part a response to the Black Lives Matter movement over racial disparities in police use of force.

Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers

Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.

There have also been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they’re going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, to escalate into a violent confrontation.

That’s not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.

One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”

Part of the solution to potential bias is better training that helps cops acknowledge and deal with their potential prejudices. But critics also argue that more accountability could help deter future brutality or excessive use of force, since it would make it clear that there are consequences to the misuse and abuse of police powers. Yet right now, lax legal standards make it difficult to legally punish individual police officers for use of force, even when it might be excessive.

Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting

Legally, what most matters in police shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in immediate danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat.

In the 1980s, a pair of Supreme Court decisions — Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor — set up a framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.

Constitutionally, “police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances,” David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, previously told Dara Lind for Vox. The first circumstance is “to protect their life or the life of another innocent party” — what departments call the “defense-of-life” standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He’d stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn’t shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, “they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight.”

The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief that there is a threat.

That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who’d survived his encounter with police officers, but who’d been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack.

The court didn’t rule on whether the officers’ treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn’t justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were “objectively reasonable,” given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.

What’s “objectively reasonable” changes as the circumstances change. “One can’t just say, ‘Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,’” Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, previously said.

In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.

For some critics, the question isn’t what’s legally justified but rather what’s preventable. “We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable,” Ronald Davis, a former police chief who previously headed the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police “need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun,” he added. “When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot.”

Police are rarely prosecuted for shootings

Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.

“There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility,” David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigationpreviously told Amanda Taub for Vox. “And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction.”

If police are charged, they’re very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

The statistics suggest that it would have been a truly rare situation if the officer who shot and killed Rice was charged and convicted of a crime. But the city has, after more than two years, moved to fire him from his job.